When Jon McNaughton decided to paint an image of President Obama holding a burning U.S. Constitution, he figured he would face critical dismissal and online scorn. But literally suffer for his art? Nah - that’s what models are for.
“I had someone hold a piece of paper, which I actually lit to see how the flames would affect the lighting,” Mr. McNaughton said. “I didn’t realize how quick it would go up, like in two seconds. Holy moly, it almost burned the model.”
A 44-year-old artist from Provo, Utah, Mr. McNaughton has been hot himself lately, producing a series of controversial conservative-themed political paintings that have garnered national attention and prompted both partisan and aesthetic debate.
Stating on his radio show that Mr. McNaughton’s work “moves me more than any art that I’ve ever seen,” Fox News host Sean Hannity taped a television interview with the artist and recently purchased the painting of Mr. Obama and a flaming Constitution, “One Nation Under Socialism.”
More than 3.7 million viewers have clicked on an explanatory YouTube video for “The Forgotten Man,” one of Mr. McNaughton’s previous paintings, which depicts Mr. Obama standing in front of the White House under stormy skies, stepping on the Constitution as a large group of former presidents look on, some applauding (Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bill Clinton), some looking pained (Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln) while a lone man - meant to symbolize “every American” - slumps in despair on a park bench.
The painting led the online magazine Salon.com to dub Mr. McNaughton “the right’s Shepard Fairey” - a reference to the artist who created the red, white and blue “Hope” poster that became the signature image of Mr. Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.
“The Forgotten Man” also induced New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz to tell a television station that Mr. McNaughton’s work was “visually dead as a doornail” and “typical propaganda art, drop-dead obvious in its message.”
On websites, blogs and Mr. McNaughton’s Facebook page, the artist’s obstinately narrative, unabashedly didactic, often hortatory works - such as “One Nation Under God,” which depicts Jesus presenting the Constitution to a group of Founding Fathers and archetypal Americans - have inspired outraged detractors and passionate defenders.
“I think that you should add some horns to [Mr. Obama’s] head and a pointy tail wrapping up with a small flame off its tip as the fire source to burn the Constitution,” wrote one visitor to Mr. McNaughton’s Facebook page.
“About as subtle and nuanced as the conservative world view,” wrote another. “Who needs the complexity of the real world when you’ve got a painting of the president pointing at a flaming Constitution?”
“I’ve had hundreds of phone calls and letters,” Mr. McNaughton said. “People supporting my work, but also people angry at me. It comes with the subject matter, I suppose. I already knew the country is very divided - but it seems that every time I paint something that is more bold, people get more excited about it. There’s been a shift in the [art] market.”
Mr. McNaughton never planned on becoming a lighting rod.
A married father of eight children who attended Brigham Young University on an arts scholarship, he has spent most of his two-decade career producing relatively innocuous landscape and religious paintings.
When Sen. John McCain of Arizona became the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, however, Mr. McNaughton felt unexpectedly discouraged: A political conservative who fears “America’s abandonment of constitutional principles,” he found Mr. McCain to be a squishily moderate ideological flip-flopper; moreover, he was deeply disappointed in the expansion of the federal government and deficit under President George W. Bush.